The Mountain Gardener: Ideas from the garden show
by Jan Nelson
Mar 29, 2012 | 1424 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
One of the many water features at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
One of the many water features at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
Every year, after attending the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, I'm exhilarated by the creativity of the display gardens and the fresh use of familiar plants. Don't even get me started on the new plant introductions I want to use in my next landscape design.

This year, the world-class show celebrated its 25th anniversary.

A flower and garden show is a huge and complex production. Creating the 20 display gardens is a demanding task, and planning for them begins many months before the show opens. By the night before the show opens, 1,200 cubic yards of sawdust and mulch — that's about 150 dump truck loads — have been spread, and 280,000 pounds of rock have been stacked in undulating walls and water features.

The flowers and plants for the garden come from up and down the West Coast. Many plants are forced into early bloom for the show, as Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Even flowering trees are sometimes kept in greenhouses so that their buds can be timed to open the week of the show.

It's not a perfect science. One display-garden creator who garnered five awards told me that hundreds of daffodils she had planned to use in her garden bloomed a week early, due to warm weather. 

This year, the theme of the show was "Gardens for a Green Earth." There were tips for edible gardening at home, including containers for herbs and veggies on the patio, and small-space gardening, too. One of my favorite gardens combined tomato and flowering vines cascading over the edge of a stone veneer wall. Raised vegetable boxes bordered the deck for easy access, and a stone waterfall splashed into a huge oak half-barrel.

Another interesting garden was the Low Impact Bay Friendly Garden. Modern in design, this low water-use garden featured tall, raised beds surrounding a pervious concrete stepping stone patio set in a gravel base. Pervious concrete is said to be able to take in storm water at a rapid rate of more than five gallons per minute, per square foot of surface area. That far exceeds the flow rate needed to prevent runoff in even the most severe rains.

The rainwater is temporarily stored in the coarse gravel layer underneath, allowing it to naturally percolate into the underlying soil. That could be a good solution to solve site drainage problems.

Most of the display gardens featured water. Some were large affairs, with cascading boulders, while others were small and understated. In one, a length of copper tubing delivered a shower of drops in front of an aged corrugated iron panel. Another consisted of a simple stacked flagstone ledge waterfall flowing into a flagstone pond. DIY project, perhaps?

Even used tires were used as a base for a flagstone edging around a pond — although, frankly, I couldn't picture that water feature in anybody's backyard.

One I did like was a simple flume of water pouring into a small metal rectangle lined with Mexican black pebbles. It was a little feature with lots of impact.

Fire pits were prevalent, too — from ornate fireplaces to glass-filled affairs to simple metal rounds filled with cobbles. Outdoor living is enhanced with fire and water.

I had to laugh when a man asked me at one of the gardens what I was photographing. Well, I explained, I take photos of paths and steps and how they're put together and the materials they're made of, for future reference.

"Oh, that's a good idea," he said, and he started taking pictures, too.

All in a day at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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